• Matthew Rhodes

Matlock Town: Assessing the season so far

DerbyshireFootball.com's Matthew Rhodes takes a look at how things went for Matlock Town pre-lockdown, and how things could go once things get back up and running:

So, that was 'Act One' of the 2020/21 season. Enjoyed it? It’s been a strange one, that’s for sure. It will still be some time before the sport is properly back to normal but we’ve already experienced the highs and lows of any season held in far more traditional circumstances.

With the enforcement of the second national lockdown until December 2 and the decision to halt non-elite football in the meantime, there has been no change to the NPL Premier Division table for a few weeks.

As it stands, the Gladiators are in a fascinating position, especially given how open this season’s campaign has already been. Matlock are currently in eighth position in the table but have at least one game in hand on every single team above them.

Matlock boss Paul Phillips. Photo: Jez Tighe.

With four wins from their first six league games, it’s been an impressive start for the Derbyshire outfit. However, the Gladiators picked up four wins from their first six league games last season, so there may still be caution amongst some of the Gladiators fanbase.

So, after 13 points from six league games, a good run in the FA Cup and an impressive recent victory to reach the FA Trophy first round proper, what have we learnt about this new-look Gladiators team this season?

Here’s five things to have stood out so far this campaign.

1 - Work. Work. Work. Go hard…or go home

Anything less than 100 per cent is not tolerated. Simple as that. Those aren’t just the demands of Paul Phillips but from the entire management staff.

A case in point is the brief spell of Sefton Gonzales in the side. Gonzales’s signing was a big statement of intent for the club. The acquisition of a proven out-and-out goal scorer seemed like a big piece of the jigsaw had finally been located but the striker was on his own way out before he even played a game for the Gladiators.

It turned out that Gonzales had only turned up to one training session and was not buying into the management’s extremely detailed pre-season training plans.

There is no question that Gonzales is a talented forward but his antipathy to the club’s work ethic was never going to go down well. The message was clear – it doesn’t matter how good a player you are, if you think you’re bigger than the team, then you’ll not be a member of the team. The players who have remained in Matlock’s squad all share a high work ethic and put everything into training, never mind just on the pitch for game time.

2 - It might not be pretty but results are all that matter

On a few occasions in post-match interviews, Paul Phillips has admitted that the style of football being played this season is not the prettiest; but that doesn’t matter if it’s effective.

So far, at least, it has been effective. The best example of this was the smash and grab victory at South Shields. The Mariners dominated possession and battered Matlock’s defence with everything they had but the defence held strong and the attack took their chance on the counter when it finally arrived.

As coach Kade Coppin said after that game, not many teams at all are going to pick up points at South Shields this season.

Matlock’s impressive start has been built from having an outstanding back line and that will be the key for the remainder of the season if Matlock are to stay around the top five when the season reaches its climax.

Dec Walker celebrates scoring for the Gladiators. Photo: Jez Tighe.

3 - Smiles on the faces

Despite the clear focus on hard work and 100 per cent effort, the players look happy on the pitch and happy to be playing for the Gladiators. As harsh as it sounds, this never be seemed to be the case from September onwards in the 2019/20 campaign and a lot of fans found it hard to warm to the squad as a whole when some players felt detached from the club.

A positive atmosphere is infectious and you can see that with the fanbase while a game is in progress and in the Shorts Lounge bar after the game. The management staff are very keen on the mantra that everyone is part of the club and it’s important to note that management staff and players are more than happy to speak to anyone before and after the game.

4 - Under the radar

Certain players have been identified numerous times for praise and rightly so. Ryan Qualter’s magnificent performances at the back, Liam Hughes’ prowess in front of goal and the revelation of Shaun Rowley in between the sticks have won plaudits but don’t forget about the players that find themselves going under the radar.

For example, Mark Lees tends to go a little unnoticed but his presence in the heart of Matlock’s midfield certainly has been noted by the management staff. Coach Dave Wild recently described Lees as 'the glue that keeps Matlock together.'

Sam Egerton also deserves to be put more in the spotlight with his assured performances in Matlock’s back line. Egerton’s communication with his team-mates while a game is in progress, whether the team are winning, drawing or losing, has been impressive. Whatever the scoreline, Egerton is constantly talking to his fellow team members and pointing out what can still be improved to ensure that concentration doesn’t slip for anyone and that the message is hit home that the game is never over until the final whistle is blown.

5 - Anything is possible

The 2020/21 campaign is still young but there’s been some very interesting results to say the least already. The slow starts for South Shields and FC United of Manchester is a talking point. Are they struggling without being able to have their normal crowd sizes in? Possibly. It clearly can’t be the sole reason but it may well be playing a part.

This season really is wide open with a host of very competitive teams ready to take advantage if South Shields and FC United of Manchester continue to take time in finding their best football. Ultimately, this could well be a strange season throughout in terms of results and not just because of the restrictions the sport is having to adhere to.

Nobody would have expected Mickleover to be leading the table (even at this stage) but team unity and self-belief could be more important than ever in keeping a team around the mix for promotion this season.

If this turns out to be a good call, then the Gladiators find themselves in a promising position. Even if a top five position turns out to be out of reach, the club should still certainly expect to finish in the top half which would be a clear improvement on last season’s struggles.

Of course, there’s still a long, long way to go but I thought it would be good to put the positive aspects of Matlock’s start to the season under the magnifying glass at this stage when non-elite football has been put back on the shelf again.

Make no mistake, the ambition is high at the Proctor Cars Stadium this season. Both Paul Phillips and Ryan Qualter have stated recently that a top five position is definitely a realistic target to go for.

For now though, the focus goes back to the anxieties of making sure this season can come to a proper end without further financial harm to its clubs.

It’s safe to say that the importance of non-league football to local communities everywhere in the country has never been more evident.